Parties. Who doesn’t like a party, am I right?
Friends. Cake. Dancing. Laughing. An open bar. Good times.
We had a wedding here a couple of years ago. I could tell things weren’t great when I got to the rehearsal. The mother and the step-mother of the groom weren’t speaking. Apparently, there was some kind of intramural disagreement about who was actually running the show. They had yet to work it out before the wedding rehearsal, so there was a lot of harrumphing and more than a few icy stares.
But it wasn’t just the families. The bride and the groom apparently had their differences too. So, when I told them to join hands to say their vows—a part that’s supposed to be a tender moment (even at a rehearsal), when the couple look each other in the eyes and make promises with words like “loving,” and “honoring,” and “cherishing,” and “till death do us part, so help me God.” This groom refused to hold her hands, and wouldn’t even look at her.
Now, I’m no genius, but I figured there was something going on that nobody had had the courtesy to tell me about, and that this state of affairs did not bode well for any enduring matrimonial bliss. I went over to Alan afterward and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I don’t give this couple much of a chance.”
Alan said, “That was bizarre.”
And he was right. It was bizarre. But it wasn’t nearly as bizarre as the day of the big event. It was a cold November day, rainy and dreary—the kind of day that seems to be the setting for every Sherlock Holmes movie. I was glad to get inside . . . until I actually, you know, got inside.
Mary Nash met me at the bottom of the stairs and said without preamble, “There isn’t going to be a wedding.”
“What? What happened?”
“Well,” she said, “apparently, the groom didn’t want to go through with it.”
“Man,” I said, feeling awful for the former bride-to-be.
“But that’s not all. The groom told her he wasn’t going through with it . . . by texting her.”
“He called off his wedding by text message?” I said—thinking at that moment that that might be exculpatory evidence at his murder trial. “Poor girl.”
Mary said, “And I have to stand at the back of the church and tell people who show up for a wedding that there isn’t going to be one.”
“Right? And the father of the bride wants me to tell any guests who show up that the family still has a ball room at the Brown Hotel paid for, open bar and all, and that anyone who wants to go down there will still be fed. The band will still be playing and the bartender will still be serving.”
I said, “I don’t care if they did pay me, I am not going to that party.”
Not all parties are celebrations, are they? Parties can be horrible affairs.
For almost one hundred years in this country, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, they threw a bunch of parties. They called them lynching parties. The overwhelming majority of these parties had African Americans as the “guest of honor.” Oh, there were celebrations, all right. People would come from miles around, bring their kids and a picnic basket—make a day of it. Watching otherwise good church-going white folks torture and kill black bodies.
These kinds of parties had a purpose, of course. Lynchings were a way of terrorizing a whole population, trying to keep them in line. These kinds of parties were meant to send one message: “Listen up! If you black people get even a little bit out of line, we’ll throw a party in your honor. So, just keep your heads down, and do what we tell you . . . or else.”
As it happens, crucifixion fulfilled much the same purpose in the Roman Empire. The point of crucifixion, as with lynching, according to Paula Fredrickson, “was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”
The theologian, James Cone, has made a compelling case, in fact, that in America it’s impossible to “understand the theological meaning of Jesus on a Roman cross without seeing him first through the image of blacks on a lynching tree.” Both were intended to be public spectacles, meant to terrorize oppressed peoples and to keep them from getting any revolutionary ideas.
So yes, parties are generally good things . . . but not always. Definitely, not always.
Now, along about now you might be wondering, “What the heck is he talking about? Parties, crosses, and lynching trees? What does any of that have to do with the feeding of the 5,000?”
Well, I’m glad you asked.
If you take a look at the first verse of our text for this morning, you’ll see that it begins, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
The obvious question raised by this first verse is, “Heard what?”
What exactly did Jesus hear that prompted him to withdraw in a boat?
If you go back to the beginning of chapter fourteen, you get the whole gruesome recap of John the Baptist’s run-in with Herod. Remember this one?
King Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, had divorced his first wife so that he could marry his half-brother’s wife, Herodias . . . married her right out from under his half-brother’s nose. “Game of Thrones” kind of stuff.
Anyway, when the prophet, John the Baptist got wind of it, he started putting up a stink, saying the whole thing was unlawful. As is often the case with people in power, Herod Antipas, didn’t want to hear it, and threw John in jail.
It’s a fairly common thing throughout history, to find the person at the top of the food chain scheming to get rid of his enemies because they won’t say what he wants them to say.
But Herod’s pretty savvy. He knows that if he gets rid of John the Baptist, it’s going to cause an epic storm—of sorts. So, he lets John cool his heels in the county lock-up while he decides what he wants to do with this troublesome prophet.
In the meantime, however, Herod had himself a birthday party with all the local lord high muckily-mucks—drinking Stoli and smoking Cuban cigars. Yeah, that birthday party. You remember this birthday party, right? One of the most famous in history. Herodias’s daughter danced at the party, and she was such a hit with her step-dad/uncle, that Herod promised to give her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom.
Now, her mom, Herodias, harbored great bitterness toward John the Baptist and all the stink he stirred up. So Herodias whispered in her daughter’s ear, “Tell him to give you John the Baptist’s head on a platter.”
So, backed into a corner, Herod has to save face—his, not John’s—and delivers the head of John the Baptist to his step-daughter on a platter.
Nice party, Herod’s hosting.
Then Matthew says, “[John’s] disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.”
This is where we pick up our text for this morning. “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Matthew intentionally links the story of the beheading of John with the feeding of the 5,000. When Jesus hears about the former, he hops in a boat and sails toward the latter.
And who could blame him really? You hear that kind of news about your friend and mentor getting whacked—literally—it seems like an appropriate time for some quiet introspection.
But Jesus doesn't get to be contemplative very long out in the “deserted place.” Because when the crowds hear he’s in town, they start lining up to get VIP tickets. So that when he finally gets out of the boat, there’s a mass of people waiting for him. And Matthew says that when he saw them all standing there, Jesus had “compassion for them and cured their sick.”
Along about evening time, everybody’s been out in the sun all day at this huge gathering, and the disciples come to Jesus and say that . . . all these people, and nobody thought to bring bring a cooler with some beer and egg salad sandwiches. The disciples tell Jesus to send the crowd back into town so they can pick up something from the Piggly Wiggly.
But what does Jesus say? “You give them something to eat.”
“Well, that’s all well and good, Jesus. But the problem is, all we have are a couple packs of peanut butter crackers and a few stray Tic Tacs that some lady had rattling around in the bottom of her purse.”
Jesus says, “I know it’s not much, but start passing it around.”
And what do you know? There wound up being enough for everybody. That’s not right, there was more than enough.
I’d like to suggest to you that Matthew sets up the story of the feeding of the 5,000 intentionally as a feast, a party hosted by Jesus, a life-giving party in which those who have nothing receive everything they need. But this party that Jesus hosts contrasts sharply with the party hosted by Herod just verses before—a party for those who already have everything they need—a party complete with extravagance and excess, all for the benefit of those who know nothing but benefit. But instead of giving life, Herod’s party deals in death.
Matthew shows us something about the way the rulers and the powerful of this world usually operate: there’s often more than enough for everybody to enjoy, but somebody always ends up dead. But when God gets the world God wants, though scarcity seems to rule, there’s more than enough to give life to everyone.
But, and here’s the thing, we don’t get to walk up to Jesus and say, “Well, things look pretty bleak. Could you wave that magic wand of yours and whip up a little something to keep the natives satisfied?”
It doesn’t work that way in the new reign Jesus announces. In this new world God envisions, when we approach Jesus and say, “Um, it looks like there’s not enough to go around. You reckon you might do some kind of Alakazam-thing and take care of this for everybody?”
What does he say, “You give them something to eat.
When Jesus hosts a party, instead of fêting the wealthy and the powerful in a way that emphasizes who’s left off the guest list, who’s not worthy to attend, he welcomes everyone—not just men . . . but women and children, those who are sick, those without enough to fill their bellies before going to bed at night.
When Jesus hosts a party, instead of manipulation, wickedness, and death, he offers healing to the sick and food to the hungry.
When Jesus hosts a party, the guests don’t just sit around waiting to watch a spectacle for their own amusement, he expects those who follow him to be part of the catering team, making sure there’s enough for everyone else.
And that’s us. We who follow Jesus don’t gather for our own entertainment, but to be given the strength to bring life to those who fear that all they have to look forward to is death at the hands of the powerful.
It’s a hard world out there. There are a lot of people who feel like the only party they’ll ever be invited to is one where they’re the main course.
But that’s where we come in. Starting with little more than a couple of packs of peanut butter crackers and a few Tic Tacs, Jesus tells us to take what little we have and spread it around among those who want so badly to be welcomed at a party that gives them life.
And when we do that, when we quit worrying about how little we have to give and get to work with what we have, the host promises that it will be more than enough.